My Encounter with Leni Riefenstahl
The deep contempt with which the still noble world of antiquity treated the Christian belongs just where the instinctual repugnance for the Jews belongs today: it is the hatred of the free and self-confident classes for those who make their way forward unobtrusively and combine shy, awkward gestures with an absurd sense of self-worth. (Nietzsche, notebook 10, Autumn, 1887, italics original).
In the spring of 1995 I shared some BC ferry seats with German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl and her long time partner Horst Kettner. They were simply two unobtrusive members of a large tour bus filled with Germans visiting Vancouver Island. What little of the language I had at the time told me they were discussing local scuba diving and underwater marine film, which was then the vogue in her varied film making career. We stared at one another for a few moments when we debarked but I was far too shy to say anything, assuming her English was as poor as was my French. I had seen, a few months beforehand, the documentary ‘Power of the Image’ which was an awkward biography of her professional life, though it allowed me to immediately identify them aside from the conversation at hand. Knowing who she was imparted to her a presence that no one else in my experience has possessed. Of course, this was as much a projection as anything to do with a larger history. I was so taken aback at this encounter that I spoke of it with no one for many years, and it faded from memory.
But it ‘never goes away’, just as Sir Ian McKellen’s character in Stephen King’s ‘Apt Pupil’ reminded the young protagonist regarding fascist yearnings. That hour or so on the ferry was silently awkward and in the end, irrelevant to anything in my personal life at the time. Now, a quarter century later and some seventeen years after her death in 2003, I only find myself returning to it given my own recent work on the fascism of meanings in fantasy writing and in liberal humanistic philosophy. I never had agreed with Sontag, whom I use regularly as a source, that Riefenstahl’s directing somehow embodied the so-called ‘fascist aesthetic’. No, we do, as a whole, embody such a form. The sub-title to the 2-part ‘Olympia’, Riefenstahl’s film devoted to the 1936 Summer Games – the version that invented the torch run, amongst other ongoing things – is loosely given as ‘festival (or celebration) of peoples, festival of beauty’ which is essentially what the Olympics are and have always been. Riefenstahl nailed it because she herself as a youth had embodied these qualities, as judged by the esthetics of the time. Not, aesthetics, which is the more serious and formal term for the philosophical study of art forms. There is no fascist ‘aesthetic’, even as there remains an undeniable fascist esthetic – the look of beauty, its identity, its genders, its glamor and the ressentiment that attends to its every move. The supermodel of today is the Christian of the first century Levant, the fashion critic, the Jew.
Nietzsche’s texts were notoriously reconstituted by the Reich, but not all his work needed such over-writing. Hitler was both shy, awkward, and oddly unassuming, in both his sensibilities and in his gestures. They come across today as absurdities, and John Cleese makes a better ‘Mr. Hilter’ than did Hitler himself. Daily overcoming social anxiety, Hitler memorized his speeches, endlessly practicing his body language and facial expressions in front of the mirror, and one can only imagine resenting his inconsequential stature, provincial birthright and all the rest of it. It is a feeling that many of us must also overcome, for who is born at the center of things who then seeks to become the center of everything?
Man to woman, someone like Hitler could never have landed a date with someone like Riefenstahl, one of the dream-girls of her day. And yet history brought them together and sometimes in close quarters. Hitler, with just that ‘absurd sense of self worth’ imagined he understood art, and he certainly put much energy into what abilities he did have – his watercolor renderings were decent for an architectural student though very much out of fashion when in 1907, he was rejected in favor of Oskar Kokoschka in the entrance competition to the Vienna art academy – and ‘aesthetics’ dominated the Reich from its attempts at stolen nobility right down to its very uttermost depths of human evil. Yet this too, the ‘saving’ of the world by eliminating those who stain it, remains with us. In this current era of renewed naissance of nationalism and patriotism of party, are we not embodying something rather more than just the look of what is deemed to be beautiful?
It almost seems that none of the larger geopolitical lessons of the second World War have stuck with us, and we are approaching a biographical threshold over which an absence proclaims itself: that no one living will have lived through that now alien period. It is a limen that creates history out of what was until that point still memory. It is, from the perspective of human experience that can be personally and intimately shared, a most dangerous moment. The only response we have to confront this aleatory lacunae is by way of art. Riefenstahl’s service was more than regrettable, but her films themselves remain as relevant as ever. But not in that they in turn served to help convince many Germans of the time that their path had become one of super-destiny and that the ‘natural’ form of response to any ‘lower’ form was contempt, just as Nietzsche had suggested some half-century earlier.
Though in the intervening decades it was the German social scientist Max Weber who corrected Nietzsche’s perhaps metaphoric language regarding the origins of Christianity and its relationship with the ancient Hebrews – in the Roman Mediterranean, Christianity was actually sourced in the artisan classes and spread upwards from there, not downwards; it was not a ‘slave religion’ in any real sense – such an understanding could only direct further obloquy against the ‘pariah community’ of the nascent Jewish diaspora. With further irony, Hitler’s movement was limited to awkwardly skulking along politically for over a decade. Historically, one can as ever hope that the same may be said of it; a moment when human reason took a recess. But this is naïve.
What are the movements of the margins in our own time? Who is attracted to them and why? Where do they arise and how? And are they merely nostalgic retreads of lost historical causes or are they rather symptoms of a society and a world that continues to structure its life and consciousness too closely to that which allowed fascism to grasp the center of things to its paltry self before being superseded by the slightly more subtle neo-colonial ambitions of the victorious powers?
At once, we can do two things, each of us: one, the next time we are tempted to look with contempt at another human being, step back from doing so. No one person can be the lightning rod for historical ressentiment. Riefenstahl neither as an artist nor as a person can be accountable for the way that I might stare down my nose at the so-called ‘ignoble’ of humanity. And two, we must recognize that our shared contempt for those whose marginal existences has driven them to entertain the worst of our humanity can only aid their cause. Instead, we can yet take both core principles of Judaism and Christianity to be our guides; the one, that we as a species are and remain the ‘chosen people’, and the other, that we are thence placed in the existential position of having to choose one another through the act of the neighbor. It is only through this act, the ‘libertinage of compassion’, that our world will survive itself, let alone its lack of memory of the chance encounters through which historical consciousness is in majority made.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.